Tuesday, November 22, 2011
It Ain't Over Till The Fish Don't Swim
The season is winding down as temperatures fall. Things are getting lethargic, and soon they’ll disappear. Riffles that were chock full of fish become barren and soon trips are more for experiencing the architecture of the stream than they are for watching the drama of aquatic survival. Every winter I chase life till it mysteriously disappears. I want to know where the fish go when it gets cold, and each fall I learn the winter time fate of another species. I look forward to the November when I discover where all the other species go.
While its time to celebrate the fall harvest, and give thanks, this time of year I often find myself mourning the loss, even if only temporary, of schools of fish and abundant macroinvertebrates. I certainly didn’t expect to see life still making a living two weeks before Thanksgiving on the Brandywine. This trip was more about logistics: finding good access points, and getting a feel for the hydroscape. This trip to the Brandywine was going to be one about structure more than life. I wanted to learn the topography of riffles and pools of this part of the Brandywine that is bordered by the ChesLen preserve, in preparation for trips I hope to run this summer. ChesLen is the largest privately held preserve in south eastern Pennsylvania at 1,263 acres, and is owned and managed by the Natural Lands Trust. Natural Lands Trust (www.natlands.org) has preserved 21,000 acres in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and I look forward to exploring the underwater world of all 40 Natural Lands Trust preserves.
The water in the Brandywine was invitingly clear. Clear that I haven’t seen since I snorkeled the Conesauga River in Cherokee National Forest. This was going to be a good trip regardless of whether I saw shiners or trout or darters or any other life. Stream structure and geology can be just as intriguing. I waded into knee deep water and laid down over a sandy bottom. It was difficult to hold against the strong current without any rocks to grab. Drifts of sand played across the bottom as mica flecks sparkled. Small scalloped dunes formed and washed away with each flow change in this temporary place. I crawled upstream on fingertips and toes and headed toward the cobbly middle. Brilliant green algae with strands of red covered the rocks and stood at down stream attention. Orange yellow quartz boulders were scoured clean of any growth on their upstream sides, and perfectly round smoothed caddis fly cases were glued fast.
I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle of the Brandywines geologic past. I admired how water shaped rock and rock affected water, and how the hydroscape reflected all of these eons old forces to produce this view that lasts for just this one moment in time and then is forever changed. I noticed a cylindrical tube of fish hunkered down into the gravel, between two pieces of mica, which drew my attention to this spot. I would have never seen this northern hog sucker if it weren’t for the glint of mica. Northern hog suckers are one of those fish whose wintertime whereabouts puzzled me. Is this where they go for the winter? Are they always present, but are just so well camouflaged that I can’t detect their presence unless I am literally on top of them? Their motion gives them away when its warmer and they are more active. They usually shoot off before I can decipher them from their background due to their cryptic coloration. But this one stayed put, probably because of the cold and I was able to appreciate its gold tipped fins and green banded body.
The force of the water was still tremendous here in the center of the stream so I struggled upstream and toward river left, where a nice eddy swirled behind a finger of gravel that protruded into the river. As I crawled along I found two spiny checked crayfish mating in the gravel. More life and the drama of its procreation here on the cusp of the winter, when life slows, hides, seems to just hang on. But maybe that’s just my perception based on not seeing life out and about flaunting its existence the way it does in our summer time streams. Maybe life is always there and abundant. We just need to look in the right way to see it, from the right perspective.
I floated into the eddy and rested. Movement caught my attention. A school of common shiners with brilliant peach pectoral and anal fins fed in the drift. The fish held against the current, then drifted down stream, shot into the eddy and repeated in a swirling calculated pattern of hunting for prey I couldn’t see. They were intent on feeding so my presence was hardly noticed, except that they enjoyed devouring the stuff I inadvertently kicked into the water column as I clawed upstream.
The cold water started to chill through my dry suit and fleece layer. My mouth was getting numb and hands were hard to move. It was time to leave. I let go of the rock that kept me stationary on the edge of the eddy and floated in the lifeless flow. There was plenty of life there below me between the rocks and cobble that I couldn’t see, just nothing obvious in the water column. I enjoyed the weightless flight as the current pushed me downstream so fast boulders were blurred. It ain’t over till the fish don’t swim, and even then, it ain’t over.